WE’RE at the top of Baciver ski lift, some 2,610m high in the Pyrenees.
There’s a light dusting of powder snow and the kids are itching to go.
We’re in Baqueira, southern Europe’s largest ski station, counting 161km of runs over four distinct areas and six soaring peaks.
Some 1,000 metres below, at the end of a mobile phone, is my wife having an entirely different day out.
While also enjoying the mountains, her relationship with the snow is visual, not tactile, as she hikes just below the snow-line with a friend and a packed lunch at the ready.
Not a fan of skiing? No worries, Baqueira Beret is part of Spain’s wonderful Val d’Aran, a totally independent fiefdom of fun and festivities, where there’s more to do than you can shake a ski-pole at.
The Pyrenees only East-West facing valley, this impressive mountain redoubt counts 33 towns and villages and even has its own language.
Some 3000 local souls speak Aranese, but don’t worry they also speak plenty of English, alongside the obligatory Catalan and Spanish.
What’s more of relevance to the traveller though is the rich local culture… and, particularly, the food.
The region’s architecture is distinct and the local authorities (the Aranese have their own government, it turns out) have done well to maintain the integrity of their villages, which could have been ruined by modern blocks a la many European ski resorts.
But then this is where the King of Spain chooses to hone his turns, minus his wife Letizia, who – like mine – is not a fan of the winter sport.
He has a splendid villa, appropriately just above the main lift up, and pops up a few times during the season with friends, as do his brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, explains the resort’s marketing chief Pep.
“The Bourbon family were given the villa in 1984 by resort chiefs and only they can use it,” he explains.
The former disgraced PP party treasurer Luis Barcenas also coincidentally has a villa here. “But we try to keep that quiet,” adds Pep.
Described by the Daily Telegraph as the ‘perfect ski resort’ and by the Financial Times as ‘Spain’s true secret’, there really is something incedible charming about Baqueira.
Local American businessman/writer/estate agent Keith Kirwen arrived as a snowboarder two decades ago and totally agrees.
“I found this small paradise by accident and couldn’t believe it was bigger than Vail, Colorado,” he reveals.
Coming from an American, that is something.
But the statistics are certainly impressive, even when compared to the best US resorts and those in France or Switzerland.
The ski area extends from 1,500m to 2,610m and counts 99 runs and 35 lifts.
Opened in the 1960s, it has 161km of marked pistes, seven kilometres of marked off-piste runs and seven kilometres of cross-country runs.
It’s laid out in four separate areas; Baqueira, Beret, Boniagua and the recently-opened Baciver, which has created half a dozen new pistes.
Due to its north facing aspect and close proximity to the Atlantic, it has some of the best snow in Europe and, should the snow gods not shine, there are 50 snow cannons to help things along.
We certainly found plenty to entertain us; the snow park for the kids with its myriad of jumps, being a highlight, as well as the wonderful Eth Coret run that snaked its way through a pine forest.
Classes were easy to arrange through the Era Escola, who provided the wonderful Alycia for the kids, while I even tried a couple of advanced sessions with local lad Francis, who took us off piste and even taught us a bit of Aranese.
But the key to a successful family holiday are the nearby mountain villages, that each offer a cornucopia of churches and museums to visit, as well as numerous local restaurants.
The history of the area is fascinating, being a key mountain pass used by Repulicans to escape during the Spanish Civil War as well as a later base for the Maquis (the guerillas who continued to fight on against Franco well into the 1950s).
During World War II, the French resistence smuggled 20,000 Jews through the high mountain passes to safety here and en route to Portugal.
You really get a feel for this, heading up into the Rio Verde mountain pass above the wonderful medieval village of Bagergue, which at 1419m is the highest in the valley.
This is part of the celebrated (Grand Route) GR211 footpath and is a lovely walk, often below the snow-line, where you should spot eagles, vultures and even, if lucky, one of the brown bears reintroduced a few years back (don’t forget, they hibernate).
Best of all, when you get back to the village – voted among Spain’s most beautiful – there is an interesting artesan museum, a cheese factory and shop, and four superb restaurants, each with its own specialities.
Other villages of note are Salardu and Arties, which has a river running through it and a stunning church, plus the famous Urtau tapas joint, where punters queue outside before a 7pm opening time and it’s elbow-room at the bar from 7.30pm.
The capital of the region is Vielha, a bustling town, with plenty to write home about.
Take a stroll around keeping an eye out for the San Miqeue church, which is a 600-year-old gothic gem, known for its 12th century bust of a very haggard-looking Jesus.
Take my advice, hire a car and have a really good poke around the valley when you fancy a break from the snow… you never know you might even decide to pop across into France, with Fos, some 25 minutes away!
For more information visit www.visitvaldaran.com or www.baqueira.es
Where to eat
The real beauty of Baqueira is its proximity to the Val d’Aran and its collection of excellent eateries.
Every village has a good choice.
Take Bagergue, whose 107 local residents are spoilt with four.
The cuisine is a good mix of Spanish and French, plus a few local chestnuts, such as an Olla Aranese, a lovely rich bean and pork stew that warms the cockles after a hard day on the slopes.
The cheeses are excellent, as are the lamb chops and steaks.
I particularly liked the trio of places I tried in Bagergue, each quite different in style and flavour.
At Casa Rosa, I loved the cheese plate as a starter, while the pate and tortilla espanola was delicious.
Jardi dels Pomers has a charming garden for spring and summer, while in winter a big log-burner to aid the ambience.
Here, definitely have the beef consome, as well as the cep mushroom-filled ravioli with truffles.
Meanwhile, Unhola is Basque and you appropriately sit under a large copy of Picasso’s Guernica, chowing down on some excellent crab and wild mushroom crepes, cabone, plus an intriguing wild seabass burger.
I would also recommend a trip to Urtau, in Arties, but get there early as you cannot book, if sitting down is essential.
If not, you can perch at various tables or at the bar and graze on the dozens of creative tapas, that are reminiscent of San Sebastian at its best, if not quite up there for quality.
The Vinoteca Eth Cerer, in Unha, is a long-standing favourite for the apres-ski crowd and it is certainly a well-oiled machine, with two great-value set menus (€15 or €18 a head) and a good wine list.
Make sure to get there early to have a poke around the village.
Where to stay
For classic village charm stay in Hotel Seixes in Bagergue, the highest village in the Val d’Aran.
This great value hotel (left) has wonderful views and best of all has four excellent restaurants within a two minute walk. www.hotelseixes.com
For five star luxury, it’s hard to beat Hotel Pleta, which sits at 1700m and counts on its own pool, spa and gourmet restaurant. There is a separate cigar room, a shuttle to the ski lift and easily one of the best breakfasts I have ever eaten. www.lapleta.com
Looking for a villa or apartment, the best local company is Feel Free Rentals, which has hundreds to rent from isolated farmhouses to centrally located in the heart of Baqueira. www.feelfreerentals.com.
Buy AND cash in
Looking to enjoy skiing holidays in Spain’s top resort AND make money from an investment there?
Specialist real estate company Feel Free has decades working with owners in Baqueira, who both use their properties, as well as rent them out for many weeks during the year.
The holiday rental company, based in San Sebastian and the Val d’Aran, locates, manages and rents hundreds of villas and apartments across the two key areas.
“We are experts in these types of projects and many of our owners are foreigners, as we speak all the main languages, English in particular,” explains CEO Roberto Jimenez.
They have a big range of new-build projects for sale, as well as quite a number of off-plan schemes.
Visit www.feelfreerentals.com or call (+34) 943 56 36 54